According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, the Atlanta Falcons will be a top-5 offense in 2019. A year ago, the Falcons were 9th in scoring (25.9 PPG), 6th in yards-per-game (389.1), and 4th in passing yards-per-game (290.8). Those stats mesh well with Wesseling’s hypothesis. The problems with Sarkisian’s bunch were never at the skill positions — they revolved around the protection of Matt Ryan and the run game. Considering the persistent effort all offseason to cover up those faults; there are reasons to be optimistic that Wesseling’s prediction will come true.
Reason 1: Dirk Koetter returning as OC
Say what you want about Steve Sarkisian and his personal issues, but the Falcons did not have the same rhythm as an offensive unit as when Kyle Shanahan was calling plays. It seemed as though Sarkisian wanted to run his style of offense regardless of what felt comfortable to Matt Ryan. With Koetter returning, there is a sense of familiarity between him and Matty Ice. There is also a level of success Koetter is known for and expects. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked 3rd in yards-per-game last season (415.5), 1st in pass yards-per-game (320.3), and 12th is points-per-game (24.8). If he can do that with the king of crab legs, imagine what he can do with Matt Ryan and his collection of weapons.
Reason 2: Improvements to the offensive line
Ask any general manager who has been successful, “How do you build a winning franchise?” They will all say, “From the inside out.” The line-of-scrimmage is the most important place on the football field. The offensive and defensive lines control whether or not a team wins or loses. In 2018, the Falcons had the 6th-worst rushing attack — averaging 98.3 yards-per-game. During the off-season, the Falcons signed free-agent guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown while also drafting Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary in the first round. Taking into account both guards ended up on injured reserve last season, and Sambrailo is seen more as a backup, these moves have made the Falcons offensive line formidable. Their 2019 bunch could be the first one ever to feature five former first-round selections.
Reason 3: Keeping Matt Ryan upright
Piggy-backing off reason #2, the Falcons need to keep Matt Ryan off the ground if they wish to be a top-5 offense and Super Bowl contender in 2019. Jake Matthews has been steady at left tackle, and Alex Mack is an all-pro center, even though he is getting older. James Carpenter only allowed five sacks in 2018 — the fewest among New York Jets starters. Having him at left guard will provide comfort for Jake Matthews and Alex Mack. Chris Lindstrom received rave reviews, despite being seen as a reach with the 14th overall pick in the 2019 draft. He did not give up a sack in his final season at Boston College, allowing a pressure rate of just 1.1 %. In a pass-heavy offense, having these two at guard will keep Matt Ryan clean and throwing touchdowns to everyone except Julio Jones (I kid, but not really).
Reason 4: Developing a more explosive running game
It doesn’t matter who your running back is — if the O-line is poor, the running game is worse. The previously mentioned additions, including McGary — who was drafted to be a mauling right tackle, will provide a stronger o-line in the running game as well. Devonta Freeman, if he can stay healthy, is a Pro Bowl caliber running back. The addition of 5th-round Pittsburgh running back Qadree Ollison should add a bruising element to the group at 6’ 1” 232 lbs. Ito Smith is prepped to take on a more significant role. Health is the key for any position group to thrive, but that is especially true of this Dirty Bird backfield. If the 3-headed monster can provide a healthy running attack, then Matt Ryan will have more opportunities to hit big plays in the play-action passing game — where he has thrived his entire career.
Reason 5: The defense gets off the field
Both sides of the ball play off of each other. If the defense; which was decimated with injuries, can get back to what they were in 2017, then the Atlanta Falcons will be poised to make a deep playoff run. In 2018, the Falcons ranked 25th in PPG allowed (26.4), and 28th in YPG allowed (384.5). Those are vital stats, but they will need to fix their 3rd down conversion rate (31st, 48.72%), 4th down conversion rate (31st, 76.92%), and red zone TD percentage (28th, 70.37%) if they wish to compete. Suring up these defensive inefficiencies will give the offense the ball more often, allowing for Matt Ryan to put up numbers AND win games at the same time.